One hundred more days

A ladybird shelters on a raspberry leaf, before the rain comes.

Words have been hesitant on this space, for one hundred more days it seems. One hundred days passed by in June. Long, light, warm days where we could slowly connect in outside, safe spaces. The summer breezes softly shifted the raw edges of fear, placing anxiety a little to the side just slightly out of focus for many of us. And as midsummer has retreated slowly into the distance, somehow another hundred days have passed. Two hundred days since that Friday evening in mid March when I closed my door on the world I knew. Two hundred days in this new isolated living.

I am not quire sure where those days have gone. But in that time the fruits have grown, ripened and mostly been eaten, baked or frozen to bring reminders of sunshine in the coming winter months. The autumnal equinox slipped quietly past us last week and the light fades from the sky three minutes earlier each day. There is a chill in the air in the mornings, and the leaves on the trees are taking on warm colours as they ready to wither and drop.

We know that the coming northern winter will bring a darkness which is not just seen in the reduced daylight, but will be accompanied by a sense of nervousness and caution. As outside spaces become less welcoming and the prevalence of illness increases, our connection with others reduces. It is time to snuggle in and find ways of keeping our spirits warm.

As the days have marched on through this strange year, I have sought and found reassurance in the patterns of nature. The little cotton buds on the pear tree have formed into confident, blushing pears. Raspberries have generously formed week after week, finding their way into breakfasts, jams and the occasional glass of prosecco. More plums than I have ever seen, have formed from those tiny little promises and been transformed into pies and plum jam. The bees have continued their work untroubled by talk of the pandemic.

Being the first year in this new garden, there have been many surprises as blooms and colours have appeared. The greatest secret was held closely by the plum tree at the front. Those little plums were so slow to ripen, remaining hard to the touch so I brought a couple inside to see if they might ripen more quickly. A few days later, with no noticeable change, I bit into one. To discover that it was not a plum at all, but a mischievous tiny red apple in a very convincing disguise.

These little plums held a surprise for me
On close inspection – they are tiny, deep red apples.

Those patterns of nature continue, and the birds are the birds are gathering in preparation for their seasonal journey southwards. Lights are switched on a little earlier each day and soon it will be dark before the work day has finished.

We know that the days and weeks ahead will bring dark moments for many of us. Yet, we also know that the days will continue onwards. Every new sunrise and sunset, taking us towards a new season of regrowth and brighter, sunnier days. And as we move ever forwards, I am reminded that this too shall pass. We need to live in these days, not to wish them away, but to bring our own warmth and hope while we do wish for healthier, less precarious times.

The season transitions, leaves falling on the still green grass, as a bee gathers late season pollen.

Opening Up

Every time I think that the wild welsh poppies in my garden have finished blooming, I spot another blaze of orange, and more little buds shyly opening up. Just a few more days of colour, these persistent little poppies tell me as they gradually fade, and their petals fall. And the cycle continues, as I spot another few buds, the orange crumpled colour pushing the bud open for tomorrow’s bloom

Opening up crop

All the while, discussions continue and changes are announced of a wider opening up. Doors are opening, faces peeping out and families making tentative plans to gather. At an appropriate distance, and in small numbers. The world which closed so abruptly more than two months ago is slowly starting to open up, gingerly and not so gingerly.

I have mixed feelings about the opening up of the world, and the easing of lockdown. I am not ready. And I feel embarrassed to admit it. When I went into isolation it was sudden, and complete. Not a soul has been in my home, and my face to face interactions with other humans have been few and on my turf quite literally. Food is delivered on my doorstep, with my door closed. Anything which has been touched by the hands of another is subjected to careful sanitising and its own period of isolation. Conversations over the fence rely on warmth of words to compensate for physical closeness. Closeness and warmth on screens and blinking phones have strengthened and sustained. I have become surprisingly present in this new reality. Throughout these past weeks, I have become less fearful as I have built this safety shield around me. I find that I am not ready to dismantle it and allow the danger which is still lurking in invisibility to contaminate my safe space.

I am not officially shielding. I did not receive a nine-page letter which advised me to stay at home for 12 weeks and avoid contact with others. However, the public health announcements which I now know by heart speak directly to me and those who have health issues. Issues which make us highly vulnerable and at risk of very severe illness if we were to become infected with the virus. My shielding might not have been official, but it has been faithful.

I know that I am not ready to open up until I know how the pandemic responds to this easing of lockdown. This doesn’t mean that I find isolation easy. It means that my fear of the virus is greater than my struggles with isolation. I do not want to take steps which could place me at risk. Even if that risk is very low, the effect of the virus is no less dangerous. That is my rationale and emotionale.

I know many others who feel differently, and who are anxious to start opening up their lives and making those baby steps towards that elusive new reality. It is heart-warming to see plans announced and pictures of small gatherings, tears and smiles. Photographs and videos on social media of this new found freedom sing with the happiness of opening up.

Others are making bolder, nay riskier, step. Steps which cause intakes of breath, tutterings and mutterings. Steps which strike fear into the hearts of the cautious souls who are afraid of what cannot be seen.

None of us can truly understand what it has been like for others as we have experienced isolation and lockdown. For most of us, it has been emotionally demanding, tears appearing unexpectedly and inappropriately. Reactions disproportionate to their cause. For many, a difficult domestic situation suddenly became a dangerous one in precarious situation. Reports of domestic violence increased drastically. None of knows what is happening behind the closed doors of others. And none of us knows, how each of us feels about the uncertainty of the future as the lockdown starts to ease.

And so, while I can, I would like to open up at the pace which works for me. I don’t want to burst into colour suddenly. I am happy to peep out through the opening bud and just see how the land lies.

Once I feel that the outside is a place I feel safe, I will push through and step back into the world. But until I reach that point of confidence, I will stay in my safe haven, watching with joy as those who do feel ready, are taking those steps.

Corona Times – learning a new language

Learn a new language while you are in lockdown, they said. Or how to play an instrument. Make the most of this gift of time. Learn some new skill. Bake sourdough or become a yogi. Read those books lying covered with dust on your shelves. Zoom your friends and family. Yes Zoom is a thing, and the world now functions on this new thing. Stay up till midnight for three nights running to try to secure a Tesco delivery slot. Weep each time you fail.

It seems I have been learning a new language. Some words I had not heard of ,or expressions made up from a string of known words forming to create a new expressions which have suddenly taken a very clear and specific meaning. Not a foreign language, the words are already familiar. The meaning, however, is not. This is the language of Corona, incomprehensible before spring 2020. Now it is the basis of most of our conversations.

covid wordcloud

I imagine parallel conversations pre and during the corona weeks. Pre Corona, I imagine to be something like this …

Pre Corona – Have you been furloughed?

Pre corona response – blank stare. Is this an agricultural expression? Do I look as if I have been furloughed? Am I covered in mud?

 

Pre Corona – Our aim is to flatten the curve.

Response – blank stare. What curve? Is there a bump in the road?

 

Pre Corona – Are you shielding?

Response – guilty expression. How do they know I am hiding an escaped bank robber under the stairs?

 

Pre Corona – You need to self isolate.

Response – confused expression. What have I done wrong? What on earth do you mean by that? Isolate myself?

 

Pre Corona – social distancing must be observed.

Response – utter bewilderment. How can distancing be social? Is it not anti-social? Have I said something offensive? What does it even mean?

 

It is fascinating that society morphs rapidly to adapt to the threat which the pandemic has thrown on to many of us. We have quickly become used to a life which finds us speaking to people on screens rather in person and where our homes become places where we cannot even invite a close friend in for tea. While it is strange, we have become oddly accustomed to very different conventions even if they don’t quite sit comfortably. The rapid shift in language is another sign of resilience and adaptation of humankind as our expressions and vocabulary are shaped for the current context. A context which is new, sudden and which turns many longstanding conventions on their heads. It is an example of how we adapt to cope with a new, urgent situation.

Only a few short weeks into Corona times, we no longer blink when informed that certain activities will be permitted as long as we maintain social distance. We don’t need to ask what that means, it is solidly in our mindset. Social distance – 2 metres, the size of a double bed, or two shopping trolleys end to end, or an adult kangaroo. We are thankful that the furlough scheme is extended and understand its importance in protecting employees and the economy while we fear the eventual cost to society. We no longer think of muddy fields.

I do wonder how our vocabulary and language will be changed by this sudden influx of new vocabulary and very specific expressions and usage. Language does evolve and develop naturally, as we see when we hear the announcement of the ‘new words’ of the year which are added to the dictionaries. I will be fascinated to see how this turn of events will be reflected in new turns of phrase in the longer term.

May flowers

In the meantime, don’t worry about learning a new skill. You have already learned a new language. Focus on staying safe and staying well. And remember to wash your hands.

Paralysis – reflection and reminiscence

I feel as if I have been here before.

Over 10 years ago, I heard words which were to rock my world. The landscape around me shifted seismically and everything I thought was certain, was no longer so. In a state of shock and disbelief, I embarked on a path step by step. Tiny step by tiny step. Mostly forwards but not always. A line in the sand had been drawn – when I heard the surgeon say “this is highly suspicious of cancer“.

I remember in those early days following diagnosis, being astounded that the world continued as normal all around me. As I moved through the treatments and procedures my focus was on survival and on moving from one step to another. I became gradually used to the new landscape, and was able to continue to function.

However, I was aware that as I garnered my emotional, physical and psychological strength and resilience, I felt as if life was on pause. I was completely unable to think beyond the immediate, let alone plan. I counted time in increments through treatments, unable to consider making arrangements for what we all think of as social and personal activities. It was like a paralysis, I was cocooned, unable to move.

And the realisation has dawned on me that the emotional space I am in right now, as the pandemic is taking its hold, is uncannily like that space 10 years ago. This is day 22 of self isolation and shielding. I arrived home from work 22 days ago, having agreed that afternoon that I would work from home from then on to reduce risk while travelling to work on busy buses. I picked up a couple of items from the shop on my way home. Excellent stocking up – a jar of red pesto, a small packet of macaroni and some miso soups. I had no idea when I shut the front door, that I would not be leaving again for the foreseeable future. Family conversations that evening were frank and sobering. We talked through the risks that I faced. Age and underlying health conditions meant that I would not fare well if I contracted COVID-19. Additionally, as the pandemic took hold, the health service would be placed under extreme pressure to accommodate very ill patients. We realised at that point that I should immediately self isolate. And so, on Friday 13 March, I closed my doors to the outside world.

In many ways, life continues. The sun rises, it travels across the sky and taking a little longer each day, it sets again. I work from home, hold meetings and discussions online. Life has been transferred predominantly online. I have FaceTime, Zoom and Skype chats in the evening with friends, sometimes in small groups. Our Book Club and Writing Group now meet online. But even though life is continuing, it has been changed irrevocably. We don’t know when it will settle and resume and in particular, we don’t know what the new world will look like when it does settle. 

The aspect which is so difficult to comprehend, is the enormity of this. This is not a personal or localised crisis. This is a crisis for humanity across the globe. And if the most developed and sophisticated health and social support systems are buckling under the pressure, the challenges which the most vulnerable communities face is terrifying.

This is not an individual trauma, we are in a collective state of shock and I believe that we are just at the start.

So again, I find myself in this strange paralysis. This is not a pause where we can make the most of this new “free time”. I am finding that this is a time for adjustment to this new altered reality we find ourselves in. And I am finding that we are responding and reacting in different ways. This is bringing out the very best in many with heart wrenching accounts of kindness and selflessness, and sadly the worst in a small minority.

As I read more and more from fellow cancer veterans, that they are shaken by how much they are reminded of the times of shock when diagnosed, I have been reflecting back on my own diagnosis time. When I look back over my blog posts from those days, I could quite easily do a “find and replace” exercise, replacing “cancer” with COVID19. Back then, I would lurch from fear and anxiety to grim determination to beat this thing (as if I had any choice in the matter). But through it all, I was bathed in this numbing paralysis. And that is how I find these days, and weeks ahead. I can deal with the immediate. Working from my kitchen table, eating from the contents of my fridge and cupboards, household tasks, working out how to get an online shop, being humbled by the kindness of family, friends, colleagues and neighbours dropping off care and food packages, and even birthday cake on my doorstep. But I cannot shake off this sense of being on hold, paused as we are moved forwards through this evolving crisis.

The sense of deja vu prompted me to re-read an old blog post where I had commented on the extent that my world and landscape had been so drastically altered. And this is what I wrote, over 10 years ago:

There are two things which shape the way I see this diagnosis.  Firstly is the fact that life is less about what happens to us, than how we deal with what happens to us.  I can’t change the diagnosis but I am in charge of how I handle what is coming.  So be prepared for inappropriate humour and oodles of feistiness.  The other thing is hard to describe.  Life changes with such a diagnosis, and you can’t go back to what it was before.  From the day I googled galore and realised that there was a real possibility that this was breast cancer, I realised also that there are many things I can no longer take for granted.  All plans change, in fact all plans are cancelled or put on hold.  It is a bit like the sun rising every morning – you know you can rely on it, you know it will come up and some days are sunnier than others and you can see it clearly, some days cloudier but it is light so you know that the sun did rise again.  But imagine if suddenly, one day the sun doesn’t rise.  Everything changes.  Everything fundamental you take for granted, suddenly shifts.  No daylight, no warmth, no growth and the colours all change.  But, after the shock and with human resilience, the will to survive, creativity and technology, ways are developed of dealing with it and life continues.  But it can never be the same, it can never go back to the way it was before.  All right, that is an extreme and dramatic analogy, but there is something about this diagnosis that feels similar to me.

December 2009

And  I realise that I don’t need to shake off this feeling of paralysis. I need to embrace this as my own way of coping through this. It won’t last for ever. This too shall pass. And life will gradually settle. The cancer experience means that I know that it won’t be the same, and it could be very different. And, as long as COVID19 does not take me, then life will gradually resume in its new formhope

And indeed, life does continue. New shoots, buds and flowers are appearing as spring moves forward towards summer. And the sun rises, it travels across the sky taking a little longer each day, and sets again, in preparation for the new day and days to come.

African sunset